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June 29, 2011 5:27 pm

Cinema releases: June 30

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Shia LaBeouf in Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Shia LaBeouf stars in Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Since most multiplex action sequels are essentially just another version of material that wasn’t much cop to start with, why do we go to see them? For the reassuring gratification of seeing conventions fulfilled again? In the hope we may see that sometimes, action movies can actually connect sequences to build a perpetual motion? (See Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.)

But do the maths. The first Transformers film (stupid, but cute) made $709m worldwide, and the second (which was terrible) $836m, and one cringes at the current near-hysterical buzz as the third outing heads unswervingly towards the billion mark.

In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Shia LaBeouf is again the young nebbish Sam Witwicky, who by accident ends up saving the world from its unwitting involvement with mechanised morphing Cybertron titans: walking talking beings from another planet that (happily for burger bar chains with their attendant goody bags) like to disguise themselves as cars and aeroplanes. Their moments of “transformation” are the franchise’s money shots, involving banks of animators – one pictures them, sweating like Roosevelt-era typists.

In this instalment, the Transformers transform so many times it begins to feel genuinely surreal – they spring from nowhere with increasingly barmy implausibility, like someone in a John Woo movie constantly peeling off moulded latex masks to reveal yet another Russian doll inside. The film is littered with human actors (take Frances McDormand, here playing the head of national security) wandering about and gazing up like mere spectators at things that even the smallest child in the audience, who will have seen the DVD extras of The Phantom Menace , understands were never actually there. Is there anything less powerful than an actor asked to look awed by nothing? Compare with the charisma that helplessly adhered to even clunky old Charlton Heston, commanding a five-acre cardboard city.

LaBeouf, it must be said, is very good at it: the sidling backwards, the yelling up into the air, delivering lines with all the good-humoured self-mockery he can work up, and then occasionally frowning and loitering in a witty way over words when given a rare moment or two to just be. His character spends his time, even more than ever, screaming and overreacting because of accumulating forces beyond his control. But at times you can fancy the actor himself is truly deranged with frustrations.

LaBeouf is also very good at co-staring with beautiful women he has patently no interest in. Megan Fox, the hottie in the first two films, has been replaced with a Devon-born supermodel called Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. LaBeouf looks at her sitting in the car next to him (Rosie is opulent in the extreme, a creature as though perpetually swaddled in a caramel fur) with his customary pose: head slightly back, eyes moulded into a startled softness. He doesn’t seem remotely connected to her. In a recent interview he said he will not be coming back for a fourth instalment. But we will.

2 stars

Robert Redford’s worthiest film to date, The Conspirator documents the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the government stitch-up that ensured that the mother of one of the murderers went to the gallows despite her probable innocence. Like something filmed very specifically for educational purposes, its post-Civil-war Washington has been set-dressed to death and one instinctively knows – as one knows when looking at the correctly square ice-cubes in Mad Men – that all the shoes and bedpans are historically just so.

The film does have a faded beauty. It looks nicely 1980s, and Redford sure loves a melancholy, mote-filled courtroom. Scottish actor James McAvoy plays the movie’s hero Frederick Aiken, in 1865 a newly minted lawyer and a 28-year-old Union war hero. His bad experience against the authorities in the courtroom inspired him to quit the law and become the first editor of the Washington Post.

In a recent biography, Redford is described in his dressing room during the filming of The Great Gatsby in 1973 transfixed over the TV’s relaying of the senate hearings debating Watergate, breathing “is Nixon behind all this personally?” Cue his devotion to making All the President’s Men (he bought the rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book in 1974).

The Conspirator is also about corruption “going straight to the top”, which along with the phrase “get some rest” is one of the great movie clichés. Still, American studies A-level students will find all this useful, and Redford’s son is less likely to ask the director, as he reportedly did during the filming of The Horse Whisperer: “Why are you doing this crap?”

3 stars

The award-winning Iranian film A Separation is a quite intricate web. In present-day Tehran a couple seeks a divorce, although neither really wants it. The fabulous opening scene has them arguing their respective cases, addressing the camera, and the rest of the action follows the melodramatic fallout with super-curious handheld camera. Essentially a movie that looks at who did what from several angles, its argument is that within families, no one viewpoint ought to be privileged. A bit of a slog, although fresh and even lyric in moments.

3 stars

Larry Crowne – Tom Hanks (directing himself) and Julia Roberts in a story about a dorky middle-aged man who goes to community college and becomes sexually desirable – is completely inexplicable on every level. Beyond banal; vomitous, even. Save the occasional shot of Roberts’ increasingly extraordinary face (she is 43), which appears with every year to lengthen and tighten exquisitely (the adorable nose becomes even more adorable, as though a seahorse took human form), this is a film that can only be watched in utter misery. See it, and share in cinema’s degradation.

0 stars

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